Pitt, Villanova: Misery loves company
PHILADELPHIA -- Taking a pass from Dante Cunningham as the seconds ticked down, Scottie Reynolds sprinted down three-fourths of the court and somehow lofted a soft-touch shot in the most tense of situations over Gilbert Brown's reach.
As the ball slipped through the net with barely a second left on the clock at TD Banknorth Garden, Villanova punched its ticket back to the Final Four for the first time since 1985, upending its in-state foe, Pittsburgh, in one of the most memorable Elite Eight games in recent history.
That was a little less than three years ago on a magical night in Boston.
"I try to live in the present, so I don't really think about it, but when you mention it, yeah, it sure does seem like a lifetime ago," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "When you think about it, it just makes you realize how fragile it is. It's really, really fragile."
The fragility of college basketball success is plainly obvious in the state of Pennsylvania, in plain black-and-white Big East standings for Wildcat and Panther fans to digest.
Pittsburgh is at the rock bottom of the league, 16th out of 16 teams, now 0-6.
Villanova, which plays Seton Hall on Wednesday night, is one measly win against DePaul away from joining Pitt in the basement. The Wildcats are 1-5.
That combined 1-11 record of futility is a stunning turn of fortunes for two of the nation's steadiest programs in recent memory.
Jamie Dixon and his Pitt team have equated to nothing less than a model of excellence. The Panthers have been the Big East's winningest team in conference play in the past decade and haven't had a losing league record since 2001.
Until Tuesday night's 71-63 loss to Syracuse, Pitt had lost six Big East games only once in the past 10 years. Need we point out the Panthers still have 12 regular-season games left in the conference?
Now, in his 11 years at Villanova, Wright has been equally reliable. After a slow start spent retooling and remaking the Wildcats in his first three seasons, Wright has led Nova to seven consecutive NCAA tournaments and 74 wins in the Big East.
And now the two haven't just stumbled; they're in full-on free fall, leaving fans on either side of the Keystone State trying to come to grips with something they haven't experienced in 13 years -- Pitt and Villanova both below .500 in the Big East.
"It doesn't bother me that people are asking what's wrong. I can understand why people question it," Dixon said. "We're losing a lot more games than normal. But there's no simple answer."
And to frustrated fans craving results, any answers sound like excuses.
Pitt lost three heady starters -- Brown, Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee -- and has been without its starting point guard, Travon Woodall, for 11 games. Villanova has zero seniors on its roster and only two guys, Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou, who coming into the season had logged any sort of significant minutes individually, let alone together.
Those are legitimate issues and even logical explanations for both programs, but fans aren't interested in issues or logic, not when they look at loaded rosters at both programs and other schools succeeding with equal inexperience.
Wright has three McDonald's All-Americans at his disposal and Dixon has his own All-American (Dante Taylor), Big East preseason player of the year Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson, one of the best defenders in the league.
How, fans wonder, does any of that add up to a blowout loss to South Florida at home (Nova) or a 39-point performance against Rutgers at home (Pitt)?
"It's true. Some programs go through rebuilding and it's not so bad," Wright said. "Look at Syracuse. For others, it can get pretty gruesome. When North Carolina went through it, it was pretty gruesome, and for us it's very gruesome right now. We're rebuilding. We didn't want to be. Nobody wants to be here, but we are."
What's happening at Villanova, Wright said, is more about what happened previously. The coach blames himself for getting caught in a recruiting chasm, stocking earlier rosters with experienced players who allowed for a dearth of minutes for this team.
Mix in some misfortune -- JayVaughn Pinkston was suspended by the university all of last season, Yarou missed most of his first year after being diagnosed with Hepatitis B, James Bell started his freshman year late due to surgery on both tibias -- and you've got a whole lot of talented players trying get by on talent alone. That's a tough sell in the Big East.
"There are just so many little things we aren't doing well," Wright said. "And all of those little things -- it's amazing how many there are -- add up."
Others rumbling in and around Philadelphia wonder if the problems don't go deeper, if Wright didn't get stars in his eyes.
Since arriving at the Main Line school, the 11th-year coach has managed to lure more than his share of lofty recruits to campus -- from Reynolds to Jason Fraser to Dominic Cheek, McDonald's All-Americans and top-rated players have been commonplace.
Yet the coach always partnered those top-rated players with glue guys, players who were well-regarded but not in that other stratosphere of hype -- Cunningham, Will Sheridan and even to an extent, Kyle Lowry. Now he has lots of stars and perhaps not enough glue.
But Wright insists his is not a team overcome by divas. He said there are no internal issues, no backbiting or infighting.
"They don't quit. They listen and they're good kids, and if you've got that you can survive it," he said.
Dixon said his players are the same -- still working hard, searching as diligently for answers as anyone.
But one former player disagrees.
Khem Birch, whose missing inside presence certainly has aided this current seven-game skid, announced his transfer in December. Birch, who will now head to UNLV, told a Pittsburgh-area radio station on Monday that he sensed some selfishness among his old teammates. "I remember when some people didn't get what they wanted during the half, if they didn't score a certain amount of points, there'd be silence from those players," Birch told 93.7 The Fan. "Even if we were winning, they just wouldn't be happy. It wasn't a team sometimes. People would be moping around if they didn't get what they wanted."
The question is, are those merely the words of a discontented player or keen insight to what ails Pitt?
Certainly selfishness isn't an attribute typically associated with the Panthers. If anything, Dixon's teams have been the anti-divas. They have been, almost to a man, blue-collar guys who weren't necessarily the most highly recruited but had the no-nonsense toughness Dixon loved.
If there is an issue, Dixon either hasn't witnessed it or isn't buying it.
"I haven't seen any problems," he said. "They're trying to play through this, trying to get better."
Like Villanova, Dixon has more tangible explanations to point to. He also has a lot of players who have been primarily role players for much of their season -- Taylor, Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson -- plus three freshmen and two redshirt freshmen.
More critical, Woodall's injury has totally changed the makeup of Pitt's backcourt. Gibbs has been forced to play the point, a move that has led to too many turnovers and too little scoring from the preseason All-American candidate.
In the past two games, Dixon switched Gibbs back to shooting guard, inserting Isaiah Epps at the starting point position. So far the results are mixed. Gibbs had 29 against Marquette but like the rest of his team, struggled to shoot against the Orange zone. Just 2-for-9 from the arc, Gibbs finished with 10 points.
Mostly the switch has led merely to more respectable losses -- not victories -- and Pitt is not a program that takes a lot of solace in respectable losses.
"We're not making any excuses," Dixon said. "We're just trying to fight through it. I know people are going to have their opinions. We can't stop that. What's wrong? It seems pretty obvious. We're not playing well enough."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1. Robbi Pickeral contributed to this report.
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